Exhibitions as Communications Tools

By Julianna Whalen

Museums and exhibitions communicate cultural messages that go beyond the art and artifacts that are displayed. Western exhibitions of Middle Eastern and North African cultural heritage speak to history, ownership, and agency. These displays of artifacts from other cultures have stirred controversy and criticisms.

Howard Carter inspects Tutankhamun’s mummy, 1922. 
The New York Times. Public Domain.
Howard Carter inspects Tutankhamun’s mummy, 1922. 
The New York Times. Public Domain.

American archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun (“King Tut”) on a British funded expedition to Egypt. The tomb of the young pharaoh escaped looting in antiquity, leaving it filled to the brim with precious artifacts. Tensions rose over ownership rights: were the findings Egypt’s property or the world’s property, as part of a shared global history?

Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
Photo by Sracer357. CC BY-SA 3.0.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
Photo by Sracer357. CC BY-SA 3.0

Fifty-five tomb artifacts journeyed to the United States in the 1970s as part of a traveling exhibition that communicated the tomb’s objects as golden universal art, rather than artifacts with historical significance1. The rhetoric and display tactics utilized by American museums on Tutankhamun’s treasures lacked any form of homage paid to their African-ness.2

The Metropolitan Museum of Art responded to backlash with a short publication titled “Tutankhamun and the African Heritage”.3 Despite uncomfortable questions and closed-minded narratives surrounding exhibition tactics, Americans embraced “Tutmania” in popular culture, ranging from t-shirts to Saturday Night Live skits.  

In 2013, the British Museum opened a pop-up exhibition titled Modern Egypt in Cairo. Displayed objects from the 20th and 21st centuries included a sewing machine decorated with Arabic script and a picture of Nefertiti.4 The British Museum later installed the same objects as a one-case-exhibition in their Egyptian galleries.5 Modern Egypt confronted the “what is Egypt?” question that emerged due to the original American Tutankhamun exhibition. The Modern Egypt exhibition also represented contemporary Egypt, as a way for the British Museum to avoid framing Egypt solely in a historical sense (with objects collected during British colonial rule).

It must be considered whether the British Museum is actually concerned about contemporary Egypt or if they are just looking to make themselves look better; the British Museum continues to display the Rosetta Stone despite Egyptian museum officials asking for its return for display in the new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM).6 

Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq
Photo by Julianna Whalen
Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq
Photo by Julianna Whalen

Other western exhibitions have discussed the contemporary Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region through the lens of cultural heritage preservation and destruction. Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq at the Penn Museum (University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) included artifacts from their collection and contributions from the University of Pennsylvania’s libraries. Contemporary art by Syrian-born Issam Kourbaj spoke to the Syrian refugee crisis.7 Video clips throughout the exhibition contrasted ISIS destruction with preservation efforts. The exhibition’s curatorial choices were shaped by a collaboration between archaeologists, curators, and cultural heritage preservation specialists from the United States and Syria.  

Damascus Opera House, 2010. 
Photo by Bernard Gagnon. CC BY-SA 3.0

Cultural heritage preservation has also been a focus of exhibitions within Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. In Syria, looted artifacts were displayed at the Damascus opera house in October 2018. The artifacts included in the exhibition spanned all of Syria’s history. While the exhibition featured hundreds of artifacts, more than 9,000 have been recovered after being looted.8 Chief of antiquities Mahmoud Hamoud reports that there are still thousands of missing archaeological pieces.9 The nature of the exhibition speaks to the ongoing process to recover Syria’s cultural heritage. 

Museums across Syria and Iraq that closed to protect their precious artifacts are beginning to reopen. The Mosul Museum hosted Return to Mosul, a five-day contemporary art exhibition, proving that “war didn’t kill Mosul and that, on the contrary, it’s living a full-on renaissance”.10 Twenty-nine artists’ works were featured in Return to Mosul, including Marwan Fathi, Hawkar Riskin, and Ahmed Mozahem. People around the world can walk through the exhibition via Google Arts & Culture; this curatorial choice communicates concern and awareness regarding accessibility. 

The National Library and Archives of Egypt reopened in 2019 after sustaining significant damage from a 2014 car bomb blast targeting the nearby Cairo Police Headquarters.11 Egyptian graphic designers Ghada Wali and Dalia Hassan Bahig rebranded the library in collaboration the reopening. Choices made in the rebranding process focused on contemporizing and increasing accessibility to the library’s collections. The rebranding project occurred under the Thesaurus Islamicus foundation and Dar al-Kutub al-Misriyya Manuscript project.12 

The messages communicated by exhibitions can be explicit or implicit. Regardless of the way in which statements are conveyed, exhibitions of art and artifacts around the world have expressed messages about race, war, preservation, and destruction in the Middle East and North Africa. 

  1. McAlister, Melani. “‘The Common Heritage of Mankind’: Race, Nation, and Masculinity in the King Tut Exhibit.” Representations, no. 54 (1996): 82-83. doi:10.2307/2928693. 
  2. McAlister, Melani. “‘The Common Heritage of Mankind’: Race, Nation, and Masculinity in the King Tut Exhibit.” Representations, no. 54 (1996): 90-91. doi:10.2307/2928693. 
  3. Ibid. 
  4. Collecting Modern Egypt and Modern Egypt: On Objects that Represent the World 
  5. Collecting Modern Egypt 
  6. Egyptian Museum Calls for Rosetta Stone to be Returned from UK after 200 Years 
  7. Issam Kourbaj: About 
  8. Syria’s Recovered Antiquities Go on Display at Damascus Opera 
  9. Ibid. 
  10. Mosul Museum Reopens with Contemporary Art Display Following ISIS Destruction 
  11. Graphic Designer Ghada Wali Rebrands The National Library of Egypt 
  12. Ibid. 

Contemporary Art Response: Iraq

By Simurgh Staff

Much of Iraq has become a stronghold for ISIS’s forces, profoundly impacting artists in the country. As a result of Iraq’s position under ISIS control, the museum and art worlds latched themselves to artists’ discussions of what destruction does to the heritage and culture of an area. With Iraqi museums and art heavily influenced by Western society, Iraqi artists must find a way to balance between their own cultural heritage and expression, ISIS violence, and Western influence on their culture. 

Destruction in Mosul.
“ISOF APC on the street of Mosul, Northern Iraq, Western Asia. 16 November, 2016.” 
Photo by Mstyslav Chernov. CC BY-SA 4.0.

“…war didn’t kill Mosul

and that, on the contrary,

it’s living a full-on renaissance.”

When ISIS forces took over Mosul, Iraq, they destroyed much of the Mosul Museum. When ISIS was pushed out of Mosul, the museum was able to reopen part of the building and install a contemporary art exhibition titled Return to Mosul.1 As the sole exhibition in a still-wrecked museum complex, Return to Mosul proves “‘that war didn’t kill Mosul and that, on the contrary, it’s living a full-on renaissance.’”2 Many of the works that were included in the exhibition demonstrate themes of conflict, culture, and revival.3 

Iraq, like much of the Middle East, has extensive global reach when it comes to culture. The widespread representation of Iraqi culture is the result of the constantly changing political and military spheres of this region.

“Pavillon de l’Iraq (54ème biennale de Venise). Walid Siti, Meso’” 
Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra. CC BY 2.0

This is a concentration of Walid Siti‘ s art, which also considers loss of culture and its effects on family and community dynamics. His works are surreal, a style that reduces art into a dream-like and fantastical manner. “The idea is that when you lose something, you long for it and recreate it in a surrealist way, so that’s why the set becomes surreal, an imaginary landscape.”4 He seeks to produce metaphors that are historical in their roots and are transformed into something new, paralleling how contemporary Iraqi culture is being shaped.5 These metaphors draw upon the “…formal elements of architecture inspired by the cultural heritage and current rush to ‘reconstruct’ in the Middle East region.”6 

The international art community has provided safe platforms for Iraqi artists to showcase their art without restrictions and to bring awareness to the issues addressed in their work. At the 2017 Venice Beinnelle: Iraqi Pavilion in Italy and Iraqi Artists in Exile at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in the United States, Iraqi artists displayed works to challenge the “violent Iraqi” stereotype, while preserving their culture through contemporary art.11, 12 

  1. Mosul Museum Reopens with Contemporary Art Display Following ISIS Destruction 
  2. Ibid. 
  3. Ibid. 
  4. Land on Fire 
  5. Walid Siti: Artist Statement 
  6. Ibid. 
  7. Iraqi Artist Makes a Point with Virtual Paintballs 
  8. Ibid. 
  9. Ibid. 
  10. Ibid. 
  11. Ancient Iraqi Art On Display in Italy at Venice Biennale 
  12. Iraqi Artists in Exile 

Contemporary Art Response: Syria

By Simurgh Staff

Constant turmoil from ISIS occupation and the Syrian Refugee Crisis sparked artists within Syria, and from across the world, to comment on these issues. The loss of culture transcends medium and geographical/ political borders, appearing as a significant theme throughout works of art. Syria has become a focal example of cultural destruction as one of the nations considered to be the “cradle of civilization.”1 Acts of cultural heritage destruction in Syria cause individual trauma and the attack on the collective memory of Syrians. 

“I don’t think of my images as ghosts,

I think of them as a testament

to the resilience of culture”

Kevin Bubriski

Beginning just a few years before the civil war in Syria, Kevin Bubriski photographed Syrians and their monuments in what is now considered a preservation act—even if Bubriski did not initially intend preservation to be the outcome of his work.2 Compiled into a book titled Legacy In Stone: Syria Before The WarBrubiski published his collection of over 100 black and white photos depicting monuments that no longer exist or were severely damaged by the ISIS regime.3 However, Bubriski does not consider these images to be totems of a lost culture. Rather, he views these photos as symbols of Syria’s ability to continue.4 Bubriski stated in an interview, “‘I don’t think of my images as ghosts, I think of them as a testament to the resilience of culture.’”5 For archaeologists and other scholars, Bubriski’s photos hold more significance as art that contributes to the preservation of Syrian’s culture before ISIS.6 

“Mustafa Ali Gallery” 
Photo by Wisal Ahdab. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Some Syrian artists who continue to live in Syria and comment on these issues. The artists themselves are testaments to the “resilience of culture.”7 One such artist is sculptor Mustafa Ali, who pulls his inspiration from Palmyra.8 Ali was personally affected when ISIS took control of Damascus and Palmyra. ISIS soldiers destroyed many of his artworks and threatened his life.9 Ali responded to this experience with a sculpture of a human face was divided down the middle, “‘Like the Syrian face, because, you know, we kill—brother kills his brother.’”10 Many of Ali’s works reflect Syrian aesthetics (both contemporary and historical), while incorporating his personal response to the loss of culture. 

 Syrian-born contemporary artist Issam Kourbaj has gained international fame working out of England. Kourbaj watches and responds to the onslaught on Syria and its people from afar. This is emphasized in his work, which Kourbaj describes as “‘a quiet gesture, an archive to remember those who have been forgotten, and an invitation to ponder what the future might bring to what’s left of my people and of my country.’”11 

His work Unearthed shows the fragmentation of both his own identity as a Syrian living abroad and of the Syrians who continue to live in a nation that is under constant change.12 

“Issam Kourbaj ‘The Artist’s Voice’” (2014)
Produced by Diana Scarborough. CC BY 3.0.

Kourbaj also uses the concept of the match to emphasize just how these contemporary events effect the culture of the Syrian people on a daily basis.13 When the conflict within the nation ultimately settles down, Syria will not be the same.

The shifting nature of Syria has influenced these artists who invoke their Syrian aesthetic roots while considering the impact of the loss of Syrian culture. However, the damage to the collective memory of Syria truly what makes the loss of culture so significant: cultural destruction is a trauma that transforms the culture itself.

  1. Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq 
  2. ‘Legacy In Stone’ Captures Images Of Syria Before War 
  3. Ibid. 
  4. Ibid. 
  5. Ibid. 
  6. Ibid. 
  7. Ibid 
  8. Syria’s Leading Sculptor Keeps Creating In A Time Of Destruction 
  9. Ibid. 
  10. Ibid. 
  11. Unearthed: Syrian Artist Responds to War in His Homeland 
  12. Ibid. 
  13. Ibid. 

Contemporary Art Response: Egypt

By Simurgh Staff

After the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, a surge of Egyptian artists rose to comment on the changed society. Many contemporary artists used their medium to remark on the changes to museums and heritage, with some even helping to preserve the heritage that is left. 

“Tahrir Square, Cairo, in the early morning”
Photo by Frank Schulenburg. CC BY-SA 3.0 US. 

Alaa Awad (b. 1981) primarily paints murals1 and is most famous for his mural near Tahrir Square painted during the Egyptian Revolution—The Battle Mural.2 His art utilizes the pharaonic style with figures flattened to two dimensions3, invoking the Egyptian heritage and identity with which Alaa Awad profusely identifies.4 In the mural of The Tomb of Sobekhotep (2012), Awad shows several bald and bearded men praying and making offerings to an enthroned mouse and cat.5 At the time this mural was painted, the religious regimes gaining power disproved of this mural for mocking the Muslim Brotherhood and others.6 Awad’s other murals invoke monumental moments of Egyptian history. By using building as a canvas for mural painting, the capturing of these moments is physically, monumentally huge; the audience cannot ignore them. His historical references remind Egyptians of their heritage.7 However, because he uses his art to engage in political commentary, and because Awad’s artistic style balances on graffiti, many of his murals have been destroyed by the various governments which have ruled Egypt.8 

Another contemporary artist, Khaled Hafez, deals with the dualism of Egypt: a constant balancing scale between the past and the present; the East and the West; progressive and terrorist.9 Following these theme deeply ingrained in Egyptian culture, Hafez utilizes well-known Egyptian icons from historical and popular culture.10 In his painting Sketches for Sonata in 3 Military Movements, Hafez shows two lionesses and a large cow with a pharaonic symbol sitting on its head. However, surrounding the three animals are several sniper-like figures. The figures are a single color, like a shadow, but nonetheless identifiable, much like the depictions of pharaonic figures in ancient Egyptian reliefs. The inclusion of the animals and the snipers in demonstrates the duality of the collective consciousness of Egypt; civilians are constantly confronted by the clash of the depth of their history with contemporary issues of violence and unrest.11  

As conflicting forces seek to destroy or distort Egypt’s past, artists utilize their abilities to preserve and bring to life the ideological battles between these forces. Artists invoke historical motifs, blending them with styles relevant to present societal trends. Contemporary Egyptian artists are preserving their experiences, while simultaneously giving a voice to their cultural history. 

  1. Alaa Awad- Biography 
  2. Alaa Awad- The Missing Mural 
  3. Ibid. 
  4. Alaa Awad- The Sons of Liberty and Heritage 
  5. Alaa Awad- The Tomb of Sobekhotep
  6. Ibid. 
  7. Alaa Awad- Biography 
  8. Ibid. 
  9. Khaled Hafez: The Art of Dichotomy 
  10. Ibid. 
  11. Khaled Hazfez: African Memories